The Rose

It is one of those hot summer days Daniel will dream about when autumn comes.  Daniel is ensconced in his favourite garden recliner beside his little table:  beer, book and biscuits; all, he tells himself, he needs from life.   Beside him, the gnarled bush rose his wife so loves and tends that it never seems to ail or fail is a mass of flowers, drawing its audience of apis mellifera with the accomplished confidence of a garden celebrity.  Beyond his outstretched feet and across a flagstone path a cotoneaster is enjoying attention from a much larger crowd of smaller but more dextrous bee creatures.  The cotoneaster is another ancient hero.  When the plant was young Daniel set a trellis for it to climb.  He has kept it trimmed to shape through the years so the trellis host, rotting now, is kept erect by its mature guest. Timber entwined with timber, each supporting the other, neither able to fall.  Daniel feels comfortable here, in this place, attuned to the humming of bees and the dappled shade of the sycamore tree that watches over him, protection against the day’s naked heat.

This garden unites them, Daniel and Rachel, man and wife.  Among flower beds by the patio Rachel is tending her hostas, plucking snails from their leaves after morning rain.  Sipping his beer Daniel watches his wife’s wiry, dedicated figure as she works, and he laments, quite idly, the cruelty of their years.  If only Ella could be here to share it with them…

He bears these wistful moments with greater equanimity now.  They no longer hurt him as once they did.  But sometimes, now and then, when his mind is free of more urgent thoughts, his memory will pluck a picture of an excited little girl in her white dress, laughing as she runs to him, warm and vibrant in his arms.  And he will weep – yes, there are still tears – to think of her, before he can shut her from his mind.

“It was a long time ago.”

He must have closed his eyes, for Rachel is standing, looking down upon him with the critical coldness of a stranger, her bucket of unhomed snails clutched in her hand.  It is an expression he recognises.

“I still hope, you know.”  He tells her, and his eyes say ‘I’m not heartless.  I remember’.

Rachel frowns.  They have not spoken of Ella for a while.  “You shouldn’t;” she says brusquely.  “Not now.  Not after all this time.”

“She was my little girl.”  He says.  “I miss her too.”

“There’s no sense in thinking about it.”

“She could be out there, somewhere.  She could be married, or something. We don’t know!”  He insists.

“I think we do.  Drink your beer before something dies in it.”  Rachel snaps.  “Stop resurrecting the past.”  She turns away.  “I have to lose these damned snails.”  And she walks briskly down the path, heading for the garden gate.  

Daniel watches her, awake now.  His mind is bursting with the accusation ‘you shouldn’t have left her’, yet he bites upon the words.  It is a poniard too often thrown, one which has found voice frequently in the past – in the twenty-four lonely years.   His little girl.  His little Ella.  She was left to play by herself in the front garden, his little girl.  Rachel was in the house, doing…what, he doesn’t remember: it doesn’t matter, now.  She was not there, and he was not there, and Ella was gone.   

The effort of suppression is too much.  The bubble of his anger finds a way to rise: He calls after his wife’s retreating form: “Why did you leave her on her own?” and he sees her freeze in mid-stride, which pleases him in some perverse way.  She has to grieve as he grieves.  She has to be suffering, too.

“How many times?”  She rounds upon him, clipping her words icily.  “How many times have we gone through this?  Whenever you get one of these moods…”

Daniel’s resentment is darkening now.  “I couldn’t be there.  I was away, working.  I wasn’t there.”

“You weren’t there.  Twenty four years ago, you weren’t there, and I was…”

“And you left her alone.”  He feels the tears well up inside him.  “My little girl!”

Our little girl.”  Rachel reminds him, expressionless.  She is returning to him, to his bloated form slumped in that disgusting chair, wondering with every step by what device she has ever loved him.  “Our little girl, Daniel.”  Wondering how they are still together, still man and wife; as if the ugly, knotted rope of their guilt, far from releasing them, binds them to each other in this garden.

She stands above him, glaring down. “The gate was shut.  She couldn’t get out of the garden.  It wasn’t the first time she had been allowed to play out there.  I was no more than a few steps away, in the kitchen…”

“You left her alone!”

“Yes, I know.  And she was ‘your little girl’; I know that.  You never cease to remind me.  But I also know ‘your little girl’ was autistic, and much as I loved her there were occasions when I had to get away, even if it was only for a few precious minutes.  You know that too, don’t you, Daniel?”  Her clenched fist bangs down upon Daniel’s little table.  His beer glass hops and girates dangerously on the wooden surface.  

He cringes as though the assault is personal.  “She could be difficult.”

“Difficult?  Difficult!  You were always away.  You never saw how she was with me – what she did to me, nearly all the time.”

Rachel spins on her heel, stalking angrily away towards the gate, swinging the bucket so hard its unwilling passengers rattle within it.  Daniel, daunted by her sudden temper, watches her go.  She is right, of course, he reflects.  It is a scenario they have replayed so often down the years.  The gate he made for their front fence, how he set the latch high so Ella could not reach it: the quietness of their road, the attentiveness of Mrs. Partigan, their neighbour, who missed nothing that passed her window.  Yet she had seen nothing that day; had been ill, she said, so she hadn’t even noticed Ella playing in the garden, although she thought she recalled the child’s voice, raised as it so often was.  Otherwise a peaceful day, like so many peaceful days when he was far from home, a peaceful day when Ella was taken away from them forever.

And Rachel never wept!  Even when the police said they had no clue, and warned them to prepare for the worst, she remained dry of tears.  Instead, she closed down – drew the shutters over her emotions and entombed her soul.  He saw it happen, watched helpless as grief took out her heart and put it somewhere far beyond his or anyone’s reach, so only ice remained.  Oh, yes, he remembers!

Another confrontation, another failure to pierce that armour, yet still he will seek a way to hurt her.   Her retreating back infuriates; he wants to stab at it, prise open those doors always barred against him.  He has never found the weapon, but he does not cease to try.  His eyes cast about him, seeking ammunition, something new and untested.  His anger settles upon the rose.

“I’m sorry.”  He calls after her with affability that does not disguise the cunning in his voice.  “To change the subject, then.  I think it’s time to replace our elderly friend, don’t you?  I’ll dig it out this afternoon.”

This time Rachel’s progress is not halted, but there is hesitation in her step.  “What ‘elderly friend?”  She asks drily.

“Oh, the rose.”    The rose – her rose.  The rose she planted as remembrance, she said, in the weeks that followed Ella’s departure.   Crooked and deformed as his marriage, he is suddenly offended by it and would remove it from his sight, but most of all he would destroy it because it would hurt Rachel.   The voluptuous blossoms are vulgar and blousy, the rattle of bees is loud and disturbing; but more than that, Rachel loves it.

“Not the rose!” 

Is it the guttural change in her voice that alarms Daniel?  She has stopped, turned to face him once again.   This time the bucket slips from her hand, scattering its cargo on the path as she staggers beneath the weight of his threat.   Her pallor is the colour of calico, her hands shake.   “Do not ever touch the rose.”

“It’s coming up!”  He says.  “I’m going to dig it up this afternoon!”

“Why?  It’s flowered better than ever this year.  Don’t, Daniel.”

He taunts her.  “I’m tired of it.  It’s time to move on.  It reminds us every time we look at it – it’s like a tombstone…”

And he knows.  

Rachel does not have to stagger towards him, her breathing short, her limbs barely carrying her.  She does not have to grab his shoulders, almost falling onto him, implore him in frothing gasps.  “We agreed! It’s her memorial. You mustn’t!   You mustn’t!”   The tiny seed of suspicion that has lain dormant in the tilth of his memories is stirring.  First shoots of an awful truth are germinating in his mind.

Like a tombstone.

Daniel should be consumed by fury, yet somehow he cannot feel anger, only pain.  He rises, ready to catch Rachel as she collapses, and guides her into his chair.  For once in twenty-five years he sees tears coursing down her face, and for the first time in all of their years together he sees her helpless, unable to cope.  He hugs her close to him, saying, perhaps without thought:  “Never mind, dear.   Never mind.”

“I couldn’t tell you…”

“No.”

“I didn’t mean…it was no more than a push…she fell.  It was the table, Daniel.  She hit her head on the kitchen table…You wouldn’t have believed me.  No-one would have believed me.”

“It doesn’t matter anymore.”  Daniel says.  “I won’t disturb her.”

“She’s so peaceful, Daniel.”

“I know.  I feel that.  I know.”

They both fall silent.  He draws up another chair, and they sit together long into the evening, bound to one another by their garden and embraced by the outstretched branches of the rose.

© Frederick Anderson 2020.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

Picture Credit: Manfred Richter from Pixabay

Flotsam

A re-post from 2015…

“If it’s not a mine…”  Laura says;  “what is it?”

Toby shakes his head.   “Dunno.  It sort of looks like a mine, though.  Dad was saying about the war and that.  Maybe we should report it, or something?”

“Oh, yes, it looks like a mine!”  Laura mocks.  “Like you’d know what a mine looks like!  I think it’s just a box.”

“Yes I do so know what a mine looks like!  I’ve got pictures!

“Where?”

“At home.”

The ‘mine’ sits before them in the sand, deposited by the high tide the night before.  Whatever it is, its dull metal body will not tell.   The children have been watching it for a half hour, waiting for someone else to walk along the beach, but so early on this rainy morning no-one comes.

“I’m going to find out!”  Toby decides.

Laura protests.  “Noooo!  Toby, DON’T!”   All the same, she follows her brother as he approaches the object.   “What if it goes off?”

“Then we’ll be blown to bits!”  At nine years old Toby has little comprehension of all that means.  He stoops over the object.  “It’s got spikes like a mine, but there’s only four.”

Laura casts frightened eyes about her, wishing someone, anyone would appear.  She doesn’t want to be blown to bits – she needs help.  “Let’s report it, Toby!  I’ll run back and tell Dad!”  

“He won’t be up yet, and he’ll get mad at us.   See this…”  Her brother reaches for a prominence on the object at the root of one of the spikes.  “It turns, I think.”

“Oh no!”

“Yeah!   See?”

Making the prominence turn requires effort because it is rusted or seized by some other means.  Toby has to sit down on the wet sand and place his foot against the object to gain leverage.   Laura punctuates his every move with another groan of foreboding.  

A determined wrench plucks the thing from its sandy bed.   Toby falls backward.  Laura screams.  The prominence frees itself suddenly and turns, splitting the object wide open with an angry hiss.  Both children are petrified, struck dumb in their horror, waiting for the end.   

Nothing happens.

For several seconds neither child can move:  they sit where they fell, staring at the object, which has opened like a book.

Evetually Laura says.  “It was just air escaping. It’s all silvery inside!  Look:  it’s all silvery!”

“What’s all that stuff?”Toby says.  “It’s got stuff in it.”

Some of the ‘stuff’ has spilled out and lies scattered on the sand.

Emboldened by the box’s apparent incapacity to harm, the children recover themselves and edge up to it once more.  Together they begin picking over the detritus that has spewed from its interior.   “Its all, like, electrical bits.  Do you think it’s an old radio, or something?”  Laura says.  “Oh, and look there’s a little packet here with something inside.”

Toby stands over the box, staring down at it, a frown of concentration on his wind-tanned face.  “I tell you what it is!”  He cries, inspired.  “It’s an old navigation buoy!   You know, like the one at the headland Dad uses to guide his boat back in the fog?  This…”  He pulls a large, gold-colored disc from a slot in the top;  “this is the thing that makes the bell sound – see?”   He flicks a finger at the disc, which responds with a dull metal ring.

Laura has torn the little packet with her teeth and is examining the little piece of metal inside.  “Ouch!  That’s sharp!”  She sucks a drop of blood from her finger and throws the offending object back into the interior of the opened box.  “We’ll get into trouble, won’t we?  We shouldn’t have touched it!”

Toby’s frown deepens.  His sister is invariably right in matters of parental censure.  Dad will be annoyed.  “I tell you what, we’ll bury it.”

“Where?  In the sand?  The sea’ll just wash it up again.”

“Not if we bury it in the North Dunes.  They’ve been getting bigger every year since Dad can remember.  No-one will ever find it there.  It’ll be entombed forever.”  Toby breathes the long word proudly, making a dramatic arch shape with his hands.

“Alright.  Let’s do it quickly, before someone comes.”

With some effort the two children drag the object away along the beach, and the tide rolls in behind them, washing over their tracks.  It will be an hour or more before they have completed the object’s interment among the grasses of the North Dunes, and scuffed and smoothed the sand back into place.

“Time for breakfast.”  Toby says.  Then he spots the gold-colored disc in his sister’s hand.  “Oh, Laura!”

“I couldn’t help it!  I don’t want to bury it!  It’s so nice!”

“Give it to me!”

“No!  I want it!”

“You can’t keep it!  You’ll give everything away!”

“I can hide it!”

“Give it to me!”  Angry, Toby wrestles his sister to the ground and snatches the disc from her hand; then he strides away towards the rocky shore where the waves break, at the foot of the North Headland.  Realizing his intention, Laura runs after him in a tragedy of tears.

“Toby, no, don’t break it!   Don’t, please!”

But Toby is determined.  He smashes the disc against the sharp rock where the limpets cling, making an edge.   Nevertheless the disc resists him, and it requires several blows, with Laura weeping at his arm, before it suddenly splits into five pieces.   He hurls each piece, one by one, into the rising tide.

“Now!  We’re going back for breakfast!”

Still crying, Laura manages to intercept the final sliver of disc, though her dream of possessing it is shattered.  As she turns it over in her hands she makes a discovery.  “Toby – what’s this?”

Toby glances disparagingly at the black marks his sister had found.  “Nothing.”  He says.

“No?  I think it’s a speak-mark.”

“Don’t be stupid.  You’re just stupid!  You can’t speak a mark like that!”

“Just ‘cos you can’t!”

“And you can’t, neither.  Come on!”

But his sister lingers.  She tries to copy the symbols she has found, scratching them in sand that is still wet between the tides.   In the end, though, she has to admit defeat.  They mean nothing.  Reluctantly she follows her brother back towards their beach-side home, throwing the last shard of disc into the sea and leaving her sand writing to be obliterated by the waves.  For a while though, for a few precious minutes, the symbols she has inscribed remain, staring up at the waking of the twin suns.

Their message is imparted so the sky alone may read – one word:

VOYAGER

© Frederick Anderson 2015.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original co

Betrayal

Crow“So, what d’you fink?”  The crow is back on the lamp post outside my window.  It is his third visit this morning, but the air outside is still cold so I have been pretending to ignore him.

“About what?”  I ask, through my grudgingly opened casement.

“This, mate.  This!”

I stare cluelessly at him for a moment while he turns to face me, then away, and finally perches on one leg with his shoulders hunched and his head lowered.  At last I comprehend.  He is posing.   “Very nice!”  I try to sound enthusiastic.

“Nice?  Nice?  Do you know how long this took me?  Look at them fevvers!  Look at that shine!  Sex on wings, mate, that’s me.  Irresistible, in’ I?”

“You look very…”  I grope for a word…”personable.”

“Personable?”  I have ruffled those magnificent feathers.  “No, mate, I ain’t like no person.  Not like a person at all.”

I have neglected to remember the world outside is heavily engaged in the machinations of Spring.  Cherry blossom is on the bough, clouds are white and fluffy, and there is romance in the air.

“So, you’re going courting?”  I say.  “I thought you guys were supposed to be monogamous?”

Crow fixes me with a reproachful eye.  “You ‘ave to do that, don’t yer?”

“Do what?”

“Remind me!  Listen, mate.   One lot of kids – out the way.  They’re gone.  Me, I been workin’ me beak off fetchin’ an’ carryin’, stuffin’ the little buggers wiv’ anything I can find just to keep their crops full.  Now they’re big enough to do their own stuffing, and I got four days – five if I’m lucky – ‘fore it’s all twigs and mud again; know what I mean?”  He refers to the next clutch of eggs, of course.  I nod my understanding.

“See, it’s not jus’ me, is it?  You should see ‘er!  She’s down the playing fields hoppin’ around wiv that chuffin’ chough from Number Three Elm, makin’ out like she’s just two again.  She’s been comin’ home wiv ‘er tail fevvers in a ruck for a week!  It’s disgustin’, that’s what it is!”

This drift in our conversation is making my crow agitated.  He is stamping his feet on the top of his lamp-post perch and pecking the plastic cover repeatedly.  “How do I know whose chicks I’m goin’ to be slavin’ over next month?  Do you know what chough eggs look like?”

I admit that I don’t.  “You’re concerning yourself unnecessarily.  I’m not sure what you’re suggesting is even possible.” I stop myself from chuckling, because my friend is obviously a soul in torment, caught in a very human dilemma.

“Maybe you do need some recreation.”  I say, more to placate him than anything else.  “What will you do with your four days?  Do you have a seduction plan?”

Again I am treated to that askance look.  “If yer mean am I goin’ to pull – too right!   I’m off down Carter’s Farm this very mornin’, I am.  They’re sowin’ the twelve acre, aren’t they?  Twelve acres of hedge to hedge talent, mate – you wouldn’t believe!”

“Mind you don’t get your beak caught in the drill.”  I warn him sardonically.  “Aren’t you getting a little mature for this?”

“Are you talkin’ about my age again?  Here, watch this.”  Crow launches himself from the top of the lamppost, executes a near vertical climb, then an immaculate stall turn, which he recovers with vigorous wing flapping.  Just as suddenly, he turns the ascent into a nose dive, wings near-folded, only to convert into a banked turn a few inches from the ground.  To complete this curious demonstration of corvid aerobatics, he does an upward swoop, landing back on the lamp-post with elegant precision.  “Does that look ‘old’ to yer?  Does it?”   His wing is dragging a little and clearly hurts him.  He stabs it with his beak in annoyance.  “In me prime, mate.  In me prime.”

I give him a twisted smile, with as much of my face as remains unfrozen by that inclement morning breeze.   “You’re not really going to cheat on your wife.”  I tell him.  “You’re dreaming.  Those young birds would laugh at you.”

“Nah.”

“Pardon?”

“Nah.  Alright?  Nah, I’m not goin’ to cheat on ‘er!  She’d peck me ‘ead in, she would.  I’d lose me tree rights.  I’m a territorial, I am!  I got a nest site, I have – and a good one, too!  I’m respected!  See what I mean?”

I do see.  The winter has been mild, leaving a sky full of spring survivors, and only a few of those young birds will be able to breed because there is simply insufficient space.  The older ‘territorial’ birds will monopolise the breeding as they always do.  But there will be squabbling and fights.

“So you intend to seduce some poor young innocent into thinking you’ll settle down and have chicks with her, when all you really want to do is ruffle her feathers?”

The crow pauses to consider my euphemism for a second.   “Fink so, that’s about it.”

“If that isn’t cheating, I don’t know what is.  I’m ashamed of you!”

“Yeah, but….”   He looks at me uneasily.  “What do we do it for, eh?  I mean, what do us males get out of it?”

I am flattered by this inclusion.  I find myself briefly checking to make sure I am displaying no feathers of my own.  “Us?”   I try to answer truthfully.  “What does anybody get out of it?  Nothing, I guess – maybe a kindred spirit to cleave to when the wind blows; maybe another voice in the silence.  Perhaps that isn’t the way to think of it.  We don’t do it for ourselves, do we?  We do it for our children.  It’s what they get out of it that counts.”   Trying a smile, I add:  “And a few precious moments following the seed drill on Carter’s Farm.”

My crow is suddenly still.   “But then yer chicks grow up, don’t they?  And that’s us left chasing dreams.  An’ every summer is a summer less, and suddenly there’s no chicks anymore, and we can’t fly as high as we did, or as fast.  An’ sometime we have to stop, and ask ourselves really, what was it all about?”

I find I cannot answer.  To try to do so would be to confront my own broken dreams, and in my own defence I must close that portal or it will consume me; so, with sadness, I reach up to the window sash, to gently pull it closed.  As I do so, I catch the eye of my crow watching me, sharing my thoughts, exposing my innermost dread.    I might almost imagine his sigh, but of course, that is impossible.  With a graceful shift of balance the bird takes flight, away into the grey morning, and away from me.

In my heart I know I will never see him again.